When political leaders are elected in a democracy, their constituents expect them to represent and promote their interests, safeguard their freedoms, and protect their rights. Quite frequently, as candidates, those seeking office tell their constituents what they want to hear, and, once elected, they might follow through on some of those promises.
If an elected leader should utterly disregard the will of the people who put him or her in office, we would regard that as a breakdown of democracy.
In American democracy, elected leaders also have a constitutional obligation to help steer the nation in the direction of what the Framers called a more perfect union – “one nation, indivisible” as recited in The Pledge of Allegiance. The Republic they envisioned is a place where people of different backgrounds, religious beliefs, and economic ambitions can live together in a kind of covenant fidelity to the principles of individual liberty and equal justice – for everyone.
Elected leaders, then, need to not only represent their constituents but also help align the nation with the transcendent ideal of genuine community. By organizing geographical populations into cities, counties, and states, it was believed that the will of the majority would have its voice heard at the highest levels of government.
And if it happened that this general will of the people was out of alignment with the principles of an ever more perfect union, the civic and moral duty of a leader would be to choose the Republic over his or her constituents.
That’s what we might hope would happen, but the Greek philosopher Plato had little confidence in the self-correcting conscience of democracy, and for two main reasons. First, the people themselves are notoriously temperamental and capricious, driven by the urgency of their appetites and passions. Their animal nature frequently undermines and corrupts clear thinking and the ability to discriminate between truth and illusion, between what is truly good and what only feels good.
Because of this, they are especially susceptible to being deceived – by their senses, by the broken logic and subjective certainty of their own beliefs, and by others who mislead them with seductive rhetoric, emotional reasoning, fake news and conspiracy theories.
It’s important to understand that Plato didn’t just regard “the people” in this way, but all people – any person and every human being has this part of them which is moved by compulsions that are neither rational, reasonable, or all that socially responsible. Even political leaders are included, of course, leading to Plato’s second reason for doubting the long-term viability of democracy.
An elected leader is someone who must be sufficiently wise in the virtues of community and the skills of diplomacy, but also wise to his or her own baser inclinations, including their secret or not-so-secret ambitions for popularity, power, and re-election. How can the rest of us know that an elected leader is in possession of such an honest self-awareness and the enlightened devotion to what it will take for all of us to reach the promised land? Listen to what they say and watch what they do, and perhaps their true character will become evident.
Because we are all pretty good at faking that, at least for a while, Plato wasn’t too sure. Even an all-wise philosopher-king will need to prove himself.
Plato’s doubts over democracy are just now (and once again) proving prophetic. Republican leaders across all three branches of government are pandering to their constituents, and quite willfully not only disregarding but acting in brazen opposition to the principles of democracy itself.
Lingering and resurgent white supremacist values in their voter base are compelling the interference of these politicians in civil rights legislation for people of color. Republican leaders are unwilling to condemn bizarre conspiracy theories as nonsense and call out those who spread them on social media.
Even after “the will of the people” erupted in a mob insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 – incited by Donald Trump’s refusal to concede his election loss and his exhortation to “take back your country” – an overwhelming majority of Republican leaders gave it their quiet endorsement; in some cases even their outspoken support.
In just days from this writing, the US Senate will hear the House’s impeachment case against former president Trump. However, despite overwhelming video evidence (which all Americans saw on their televisions), numerous killed during or dying as a result of the attack, and even the fact that members of Congress were themselves its intended victims, Republican leadership is not likely to indict Trump and thereby controvert the will of their constituents.
They’re hoping for re-election in 2022 and maybe 2024, after all. Isn’t that what politics is all about?
Nevertheless, the Republican party is currently in the throes of collapsing under its own hypocrisy, division, and lack of leadership. A few may emerge on the other side, repentant and resolved to take up the cause of “one nation, indivisible” – but we’ll have to wait and see. If they do find their souls again and take their place as true leaders, their future re-election by the “will of the people” may well be at risk.
But isn’t that the challenge of leadership? After the election, you will at times have to choose between doing what the people want and doing what is best for them.
By their wisdom, courage, and devotion to a nation for all of us, such leaders can inspire the rest of us to live by the light of our higher nature as well.
In such fashion, a more perfect union slowly becomes our reality.